Discovering America's West

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The wind will not stop. Gusts of sand swirl before me, stinging my face. But there is still too much to see and marvel at, the world very much alive in the bright light and wind, exultant with the fever of spring, the delight of morning ...

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire



Between 1988 and 2014, I spent many a vacation in the western part of the USA, traveled about 120,000 miles there, visited most of the national parks and national monuments, and developed a particular affection for deserts, badlands, and other wilderness areas.

The scenery of the West is truly spectacular, and there is much to discover if you have the courage to leave the beaten path. However, not every dirt track or jeep trail is marked on road maps, and road conditions may vary between dusty, bumpy, muddy, and impassable. Do not expect roadsigns everywhere. Be prepared to help yourself. The backcountry is as rough and unforgiving as it is beautiful, and there is no gas station or repair shop around the corner.


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Muddy Dirt Road near Capitol Reef National Park, Utah



The following list includes most of the places I visited. Some of them, like Grand Canyon, Yosemite, or Yellowstone, are highly commercialized areas notoriously crowded with tourists, and I don't go there anymore. There are other, less "developed" places, among them real gems which are by no means less inspiring. If you accept the challenge of driving adventurous backroads, you will be rewarded with breathtaking vistas, interesting geological features, or the sight of rare plants and animals.

Visit my 2001 photo gallery.

Visit my 2002 photo gallery.

Visit my 2003 photo gallery.

Visit my 2004 photo gallery.

Visit my 2005 photo gallery.

Visit my 2008 photo gallery.

Visit my 2010 photo gallery.

Visit my 2014 photo gallery.

Visit my black-and-white photo gallery.


Going to the desert or other wilderness without proper preparation and planning is like buying a one-way ticket. For those who want to explore the backcountry I have a couple of recommendations resulting from on my own experience* :

Make yourself familiar with survival rules and the fundamentals of land navigation before you enter any desert or other wilderness area. Your navigational equipment should include a topograhic map or atlas of the respective area, a compass, a GPS navigator (a small, hand-held GPS is ok), a notepad, a pencil, a protractor, a ruler, and a pocket calculator.

Inform yourself about the areas you are planning to visit. Inquire about current road conditions (including river fords). Listen to the local weather forecast. Sources of information are BLM offices, web sites, radio stations, chambers of commerce, local people, and near-by facilities like visitor centers and ranger stations. Knowing the local magnetic declination may be important since the latter is considerable in some areas, and a magnetic compass may become almost useless if no correction is applied. In some national parks, you are required to register before going on a backcountry trip (don't forget to sign out afterwards!).

If you happen to be a licensed radio amateur, take a portable shortwave transceiver with you. This may be the only means of communication with the outside world in case of emergency since cellular phones don't work in remote areas. Even a CB radio is still better than nothing.

After leaving the last known road, stop at every fork or crossroad, mark your GPS position, and note which way you are going. Following this rule, you can always find your way back to the starting point. Do not only rely on GPS. Try to identify each waypoint on the map. Stay alert and look out for prominent landmarks. If you go hiking, store the GPS coordinates of the parking lot. This makes it easier to find the way back to your car.

Use a high-clearance 4WD car or pick-up truck if possible. Stopping in front of an impassable ford or mud hole after driving fifty miles of bumpy dirt road in a passenger car is quite frustrating. Shock absorbers or mufflers damaged by rocks are no fun either. Buy enough gas and check the tire pressure (including the spare tire). Check if the tool kit of the car is complete (jack!). A rope may be needed to tow your (or somebody else's) car in case of a breakdown.

Keep a shovel or spade in your car unless you stay on improved roads. You will need it sooner or later, believe me.

Take plenty of drinking water and food for a couple of days with you. Taking camping gear on the trip may also be a good idea, even if you are not planning to stay overnight. If you get stuck, don't panic. You may have to spend a few hours or days in the desert but sooner or later some hunter, rock collector, or off-road biker will find you. I made the experience that even the most remote areas in the US (with the exception of Alaska maybe) are not entirely deserted, and every couple of hours you will probably see somebody as long as you don't leave the trail.

Don't forget a hat, sun glasses, sun lotion, insect repellent, and a first-aid kit. In addition, a snake bite kit may be useful. I saw only two rattlesnakes in sixteen years, but you never know. Wear boots, not sandals, even when it is hot outside. Tweezers and a magnifying glass may come in handy for removing ticks, thorns, cactus spines, and the like.

Observe the weather carefully. Dirt roads, particularly clay roads, may quickly become impassable when getting wet and may cut off your way back. Be careful when entering canyons, ravines, dry river beds, or other low terrain during or after rainstorms (even distant ones!) since dangerous flash floods may occur with little or no warning. If you see or hear signs of an approaching flash flood, seek higher ground immediately!

Stay on trails. Off-road driving may damage vegetation and soil. A landscape defaced by tire tracks is not a pleasant view. Be careful with campfires in dry weather (observe warning signs, ask a park ranger). Don't throw away bottles, cans, candy wrappers, etc. The wilderness is no garbage dump.

Do not just drive. Move your butt out of the car and walk! Take you time. Enjoy the scenery, the solitude, and the stillness. Breathe the clean air, smell the fragrance of the vegetation. You will learn very soon that exploring the wilderness on foot is something different, and you will discover details not seen before.

* Click here for more details.


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Bentonite Hills, Capitol Reef National Park, Utah


Links:


Here are some wilderness-related books I enjoyed reading:

Edward Abbey:  Desert Solitaire − A Season in the Wilderness   [ISBN 0345326490]
John Wesley Powell:  The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons      [ISBN 0486200949]
Frank Bergon (ed.):  The Journals of Lewis & Clark   [ISBN 0140252177]
Patrick Gass, Carol Lynn MacGregor:  The Journals of Patrick Gass   [ISBN 0878423516]
John Mack Faragher:  Daniel Boone − The Life and Legend of an American Pioneer   [ISBN 0805030077]
Stanley Vestal:  Jim Bridger − Mountain Man   [ISBN 0803257201]
George R. Stewart:  Ordeal by Hunger − The Story of the Donner Party   [ISBN 0395611598]
George Frederick Ruxton:  Life in the Far West   [ISBN 0806115343]
John Muir:  My First Summer in the Sierra   [ISBN 0140255702]

Last but not least, I would like to draw your attention to Ansel Adams (1902-1984), famous photographer and conservationist. His images of the American West are legendary. To get a first impression, visit The Ansel Adams Gallery. If you want to learn something about fine photography, you should read his following books:

The Camera [ISBN 0821221841]
The Negative [ISBN 0821221868]
The Print [ISBN 0821221876]

Some of his best photos are included in:

Classic Images [ISBN 0821216295]


If you are interested in a totally different part of the world, go to Lutz Kirchner's web site. He has beautiful photos of Sibiria and Kamchatka.

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